The Open Skies Treaty - A Flawed but Necessary Transparency and Confidence-Building Mechanism

While Russia should be blamed for increasing damage to the arms control regime, Washington’s withdrawal from a series of international agreements and the threat of a US exit from the Open Skies Treaty are highlighting concerns over perceived US hostility towards arms control. Remaining in the agreement would not only reverse the pattern but would reinforce an effective and united US-Europe partnership in today’s ever changing security environment. Russia’s continued efforts to sabotage the Treaty through repeated violations of the 18-year-old agreement are undermining European security, but the ramifications of a US exit could be all the more detrimental to the Treaty’s European Members.

Due to continuous violations by Russia and as a result of changes in the current security environment, in May 2020, President Donald Trump announced the US’s intention to withdraw from the Open Skies Treaty, which currently allows unarmed surveillance flights over member States territories.

Once the six-month notice period comes to an end, the absence of a new agreement or a lack of a serious effort by Moscow to comply with the treaty could inevitably lead to the US formally leaving the agreement altogether.


What is the Open Skies Treaty and Why is it Important?

The Open Skies Treaty should be understood as a trust and confidence-building mechanism through military transparency and some degree of verification of arms control agreements by relevant States Parties. 

Since officially coming into force in 2002, it has permitted unarmed, fixed-wing observation flights over the territories of 34 signatory States covering an area from Vancouver to Vladivostok in order to observe military forces as well as military activities. This allows for a boost in interactions, mutual understanding and confidence by providing all member States an opportunity to gather photographic data across the Euro-Atlantic region.

It is important to note that each signatory allows a quota - based on the size of their territory - of unhindered observation flights over its own territory and vice versa on a very short notice, using mutually agreed and specific aircraft, and sensors of a predefined resolution.


“The Open Skies Treaty ultimately contributes to cooperative security and stability.”


The Treaty is therefore a crucial arms control monitoring tool which strengthens conflict-prevention and crisis management capabilities, but ultimately contributes to cooperative security and stability.

It remains to this day one of the very few opportunities for military cooperation between Washington, with its NATO allies, and Russia in the sense that “both the observing state and the observed state can sit together in one aircraft” during a surveillance operation as described by the Institute for Peace Research and Security Policy.

Yet, this unique instrument of inter-military transparency and cooperation has suffered for many years from concerns about compliance-related issues.


Building Up A Case for a US Withdrawal

Washington has its sights set on Moscow accusing it of being a serial offender by breaching the treaty countless times by blocking flights over military facilities and entire regions.

Russia has indeed restricted the extent of observation flights over Chechnya and the enclave of Kaliningrad - a region of great strategic importance to Moscow which houses the Russian Baltic Fleet as well as nuclear-capable Iskander missiles - and has barred flights along the Russian border with the Russia-occupied Georgian territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. As a side note however, the US has in response imposed similar restrictions on Russian flights over military facilities in Alaska and Hawaii.

Russia’s designation of an Open Skies refueling airfield in Crimea - in breach of international law and a deliberate affront to Ukrainian sovereignty and territorial integrity -  and its opposition to a joint US-Canada observation flight near the large-scale Tsentr-2019 military exercises have - far from contributing to de-escalation - further strained US-Russian relations and have dramatically contributed to heightened tensions.

Finally, there have been concerns expressed over the possibility of Russia gathering data on critical US and European infrastructures in “support of an aggressive new Russian doctrine”. Yet, this last concern should be taken with a certain amount of scepticism as agreed sensor resolution - which may be inspected by the host country - has remained unchanged since 2002, and Russia operates imaging satellites which produce high-resolution images which may exceed the quality of images taken by standardised authorised Open Skies aircraft.


The Relevance of the OST for European Members

A US withdrawal will not automatically translate into a domino effect, as warned by Russia, because the OST remains part of Europe’s security architecture and is the last agreement which is meant to contribute towards de-escalation in Europe since the end of the Cold War.

A joint statement issued by the foreign ministries of Belgium, Czechia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain and Sweden further comforts this idea as they assert that the OST “is a crucial element of the confidence-building framework that was created over the past decades in order to improve transparency and security across the Euro-Atlantic area."

The absence of such a confidence-building mechanism between Russia and European NATO member States could lead to a dangerous deterioration in Russia-Europe relations which have been put to the test since the 2014 annexation of Crimea and the military intervention in Donbass. This explains the attachment that most signatories have to the treaty. This was further reiterated during a July 6 OST conference held in Vienna to “consider the effect of the withdrawal on this Treaty”.


“The absence of such a confidence-building mechanism between Russia and European NATO member States could lead to a dangerous deterioration in Russia-Europe relations.”


Furthermore, European member States: 1) would lose crucial intelligence data as many do not possess reconnaissance satellites capabilities, 2) would be deprived of the only opportunity to collect timely intelligence on Russian military activities, and 3) do not conduct as many flights as the US. The loss of shared intelligence accessible to all signatory States would make it difficult for European members to appropriately address Russian movements.

While the latter could, however, be a short-term inconvenience as French and German surveillance flights might eventually fill the gap, Eastern European NATO members which have remained throughout the years concerned by Russia’s military build up in the region will still be affected in the immediate future following a potential US withdrawal. This is due to the fact that the OST has been for the past nearly 20 years a valuable instrument for threat management, predictability as well as stability, constraining Russia’s aggressive behaviour in the post-Soviet sphere.


Why Should the US Remain in the OST?

Russia’s non compliance with the treaty and unjustified restrictions on observation flights is undoubtedly undermining trust and the success of the OST. Yet, withdrawing from the treaty would not only impact US national security, but also that of European treaty members.

If the US decides to withdraw from the treaty in November, Moscow could follow suit by ceasing its adherence to the OST fearing that the remaining European members could share intelligence collected with their NATO ally while Russian surveillance aircraft would no longer have access to US airspace.

The best response to Russia’s violations should not be a unilateral withdrawal from the OST but rather a stronger commitment to it because it is one of the main pillars of peace and security, thereby taking the moral high ground while strengthening resilience by further enhancing cooperation and US solidarity towards its European allies. Nevertheless, this should be accompanied with consequences for non-compliance with OST provisions and a tougher stance on Moscow’s rebellious behaviour.

Observation flights denial over Kaliningrad, along the Russian border with South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and the designation of an OST refueling location in Crimea have among many other violations attracted legitimate criticism from the US. Yet, they in no way diminish the importance of the OST as a crucial confidence-building mechanism as well as a valued intelligence collection instrument for some member States.

The best response to Russia’s violations should not be a unilateral withdrawal from the OST but rather a stronger commitment to it.”


Unfortunately, the unpredictability of the Trump Administration and Moscow’s aggressive foreign policy have made it impossible for analysts to determine whether the treaty will survive beyond November 2020. An eventual full US withdrawal would not only be a massive blow to arms control, but will ultimately further contribute to toxic relations between the US and its European NATO allies, fueling growing European distrust in their American counterpart  which in turn will benefit Russia and undermine transatlantic unity.

About author: Jean-Patrick Clancy


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